John Chamberlain’s Crazy Metal Sculptures Take Over the Guggenheim

Twisting brightly colored fenders, bumpers, and fins into compact beautiful objects, sculptor John Chamberlain gave trashed cars a glamorous second life. Chamberlain, who died last December at the age of 84, was also known for his continuous exploration of new materials and processes. “I think of my art materials not as junk but as garbage,” he once said. “Manure, actually; it goes from being the waste material of one being to the life-source of another.” In celebration of his five-decades long career, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum recently mounted John Chamberlain: Choices, a comprehensive exploration of his work, and the first retrospective in the US since 1986.

Born in Rochester, Indiana, in 1927, Chamberlain studied painting at the Art Institute of Chicago for a year and a half before constant fighting with “narrow-minded” professors drove him to seek out the avant-garde Black Mountain College in North Carolina. There, he worked with Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, and Charles Olson, poets who would greatly influence his art. Chamberlain moved to New York in the late ’50s heyday of Abstract Expressionism, and became one of a handful of artists who pioneered the use of industrial and vernacular materials in sculpture, transcending earlier notions of sculptural beauty. Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning became his drinking buddies, and as the artist’s recent New York Times obit describes it, Chamberlain developed a reputation as “an art-world hellion, especially during the heyday of Max’s Kansas City… At six-foot-four, with a broad, toothy smile full of mischief and menace, he looked, and sometimes acted, like a character from a Sam Peckinpah movie.”

Chamberlain remained relevant to the art scene up until the last year of his life, selling one of his pieces for a record $4.7 million and making news last spring when Larry Gagosian poached him from blue chip rival Pace Gallery — the two galleries held competing simultaneous exhibitions. For now, at least, it seems the Guggenheim has the last word presenting a range of work from Chamberlain’s earliest through his last works — and it’s not all car parts. Click through our gallery below for a look at what to expect at the show, which is up at the Guggenheim through May 13th.

Dolores James, 1962. Painted and chromium-plated steel. 72 1/2 × 101 1/2 × 46 1/4 inches (184.2 × 257.8 × 117.5 cm). Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York © 2011 John Chamberlain/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: David Heald/Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York